Country Legend Kenny Rogers Dies at 81

His Classics Include "The Gambler," "Lucille"

Kenny Rogers, who moved fluidly between country and pop music for much of his long career, died March 20 at home of natural causes in Sandy Springs, Georgia. He was 81.

Given his musical versatility, it seemed entirely fitting that an artist who began his professional career in a jazz band would, at the age of 75 in 2013, be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Apart from his music, Rogers also made his marks as an actor, photographer and restaurant-chain owner.

Kenneth Donald Rogers was born Aug. 21, 1938 in a federal housing project in Houston, Tex. Among his earliest influences were his uncles who played guitar and fiddle. He formed a band, The Scholars, while still in high school.

As “Kenneth Rogers,” he released two singles on the Carlton Records label in 1958 and in do doing earned an appearance on American Bandstand. But his big break came soon after when pianist Bobby Doyle hired Rogers as bass player (and occasional vocalist) for his jazz trio.

Rogers was a member of the Bobby Doyle Trio when it recorded the album In a Most Unusual Way for Columbia Records in 1962. The album featured such pop standards as “I Got Rhythm,” “People Will Say We’re In Love” and “Fly Me To The Moon.”

In 1966, Rogers joined the New Christy Minstrels folk group, which, by this time, had scored all its pop hits. The next year, he organized the First Edition with former members of the Minstrels. This led to his breakthrough as the lead vocalist on the First Edition’s 1968 debut hit, “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” which rose to No. 5 on the pop chart.

By 1969, the band was being billed as Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. Its first and biggest hit was “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town,” penned by country singer and songwriter Mel Tillis. It peaked at No. 6 pop, but it also provided Rogers his entry to the country charts, rising there to No. 39.

During the early and mid-1970s, Rogers began to focus on the country market, testing the waters with such songs as a cover of Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again” and the hymn-threaded “Love Lifted Me.”

However, it was the doleful narrative “Lucille” in 1977 that solidly established his country credentials. It went to No. 1 and stayed there for two weeks. Moreover, it went on to earn a Grammy award as best male country vocal and a Country Music Association trophy as single of the year. It also went to No. 5 on the pop chart.

There would be 20 more country chartoppers over the next 20 years, including “The Gambler,” “She Believes In Me,” “Coward Of The County,” “Lady,” “Love Will Turn You Around” and “Morning Desire.”

Several of his biggest hits were duets, among them “Every Time Two Fools Collide” (with Dottie West), “We’ve Got Tonight” (Sheena Easton), “Islands In The Stream” (Dolly Parton) and “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine” (Ronnie Milsap).

After a period of 12 years without a No. 1, Rogers came back to the top in 1999 with “Buy Me A Rose,” a vocal collaboration with Alison Krauss and Billy Dean.

Throughout his period of country music dominance in the 1980s, Rogers consistently made the pop charts. “Lady” stayed at No. 1 there for six weeks and “Islands In The Stream” for two. “She Believes In Me,” “Coward Of The County,” “Don’t Fall In Love With A Dreamer” (with Kim Carnes) and “I Don’t Need You” all went Top 5.

Rogers also experimented with a variety of producers to keep his sound fresh. Larry Butler produced his early country hits, but the singer also tapped the production talents of Lionel Richie, Barry Gibb and George Martin, among others.

Six of Rogers’ albums were certified platinum (for shipment of a million copies), three double platinum, one triple platinum and one quintuple platinum.

Besides maintaining a heavy schedule of recording and touring, Rogers made movies and headlined TV specials as well. Five of the movies—shot between 1980 and 1994—were based on his 1978 hit, “The Gambler.” There was also a movie version in 1981 of “Coward Of The County.”

Rogers was a major participant in two of the 1980s most flamboyant hunger-relief campaigns: the “We Are The World” fund-raising recording in 1985 and the “Hands Across America” nation-spanning human chain in 1986.” Both events were masterminded by Rogers’ then-manager, Ken Kragen.

Even as his pop music appeal dimmed, Rogers continued to chart country singles throughout the early 2000s --generally, though, in the lower rankings.

Rogers published two well-received books of photography: Kenny Rogers’ America (1986) and Your Friends and Mine (1987). His memoir, Luck or Something Like It, was released in 2012.

In 1991, Rogers joined with John Y. Brown, the former governor of Kentucky, to set up a chain of restaurants called Kenny Rogers Roasters.

Following the release of two gospel albums in 2011 and 2012, Rogers brought forth another country collection in 2013, You Can’t Make Old Friends. The title cut saw him reunited with Dolly Parton, 30 years after their blockbuster hit, “Islands In The Stream.”

In 2013, Rogers was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame with Cowboy Jack Clement and Bobby Bare. Two years later, he announced a final tour that was scheduled to run through 2018. However, health problems led him to canceling the last dates in early 2018.

His final performance in Nashville took place Oct. 25, 2017. It was an all-star event that included performances by Dolly Parton, Lionel Richie, the Oak Ridge Boys, the Judds, Reba McEntire, Crystal Gayle, Kris Kristofferson, Alison Krauss and many others.

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